In early 2018 Sherry Moss, professor of organizational studies at Wake Forest University, was approached by a woman struggling under a verbally and mentally abusive adviser– the subsequent investigation led to her recently published research article regarding the atmosphere of abuse commonly found in university laboratories. Moss finds, as her title makes clear, that research is set up for bullies to thrive. In her article, Moss journeys into both the psychological premise for these bullying antics, and the reason they are not only allowed, but enabled.
Why is this happening?-
Moss finds that academic settings have higher rates of bullying than other workplaces, but claims, “I have no evidence that scientists are more likely than the general population to have characteristics of abusers or their targets.” She finds that the atmosphere of demand on supervisors to produce results can lead to displaced aggression towards students and the position they have of control commonly leads to what is called “power-poisoning.” Not only that, but because there is rarely an established system of accountability in place, the students have no guarantee that complaints will be investigated or heeded and place themselves (and their years of research) at risk. “When penalties are rare, bad behaviour can thrive.”
What can be done about it?-
As with any pervasive dilemma, there are a host of solutions at hand and the best one really depends on the individual situation. Clear communication of the students’ disgruntlement and expectations to either the supervisor or other faculty members is an option, but one which can prove risky, as it could easily results in loss of an essential reference and affect future positions and grant possibilities. There is also the option for students to simply not work with a supervisor who is notorious for bullying antics, but the benefit of this direct tactic is hindered by the power of prestige, Moss finds all too often students will opt to work with “a big name who has lots of publications instead of heeding warnings.” Moss’ ultimate conclusion is that “research institutions must do more to watch for and eliminate abuse.” Institutions should take more serious inquiry into not just peer-review, but also student reviews, during and following research opportunities. These practices should be in place not only for teachers suspected of abuse, but in general. Funding is also an essential reinforcement tool and should be used to reward institutions which partake of such practices. Consequences for egregious behavior should be instituted, addressing complaints with dismissal or stripping of supervision privileges. Finally, Moss calls for the creation of “navigable paths for early-career researchers to switch supervisors.”
Safety covers all aspects of human health, including mental and emotional. Safety in the workplace (or research facility) is a contributing factor to peace of mind, well-being, and quality of work. Following Moss’ prescribed steps to eradicate the sources of negative research atmospheres may be quite an undertaking for any institution; however, if quality of research is to be the highest priority, the reward of such an undertaking outweighs any setbacks.